Handguns for Protection in the Field

By Chuck Hawks

This article is about using a handgun for defense against large predators, principally bears and large cats. In the New World, these would include the cougar, jaguar, black bear, grizzly bear, brown bear and polar bear. A wolf pack constitutes a somewhat different type of deadly threat. The individual animals are smaller, but attack as a group, a very dangerous situation, indeed.

All of these predators hunt deer and other (sometimes much larger) game that is the same approximate size as an adult human being. Being the same approximate size as the predators' usual prey is highly undesirable; the implication is that we are at risk when in proximity to these large predators, particularly in areas where they are protected or not hunted regularly and thus do not fear homo sapiens as an apex predator.

So that we have a realistic appreciation of the size of these predators, I am going to use the figures developed by Edward A. Matunas and published in the 47th Edition of the Lyman Reloading Handbook. These are the approximate live weight ranges of full grown males of the species: gray wolf, 75-170 pounds; cougar, 150-250 pounds; jaguar, 200-310 pounds; black bear, 300-650+ pounds; grizzly and brown bear, 700-1600+ pounds; polar bear, 900-1550 pounds.

A powerful rifle is superior to any handgun in killing power, of course, and is the best choice for protection against large predators. (See Rifles for Protection in the Field.) However, a rifle may not be very handy inside of a tent, beside a trout stream, or for a nature lover or mountain climber on a strenuous hike. For outdoorsmen not engaged in hunting, but nevertheless exposed to the threat of attack by large predators, a handgun is probably the only firearm that offers the requisite portability and also leaves the hands free for other activities.

Deadly encounters with large predators involving people armed with magnum handguns are relatively rare and I doubt enough of them have been carefully documented since the development of the magnum revolver in 1935 to create a statistically valid "one shot stop" database. This is a pity, for without such data we can only estimate, based on our own research and experience, which calibers and loads offer a realistic level of protection.

Although infrequent, attacks on humans by large predators do happen. They are increasing in number in North America, due to continued human encroachment into wilderness areas and unwise policies protecting potentially dangerous predators from sport hunting. After a generation or two of not being hunted, these large predators lose their fear of man and revert to viewing our species as potential prey.

Because large predators have thick fur, a tough hide and much heavier muscles and bone structure than human beings, it is generally accepted that a bullet/load capable of deep penetration is highly desirable. This favors bullets of robust construction and high sectional density (SD).

In addition to powerful ammunition with plenty of penetration, we need a very reliable repeating handgun. The choices basically come down to an autoloading pistol chambered for some sort of magnum cartridge, of which there are few, or a revolver chambered for a powerful magnum cartridge, of which there are many.

The most commonly available, reasonably portable, autoloader that might serve our purpose is the Glock Model G20, chambered for the 10mm Auto (.40 caliber) cartridge. The G-20 is as reliable as a powerful auto gets and relatively compact. This pistol comes with a 4.6" barrel, is 7.59" in overall length and weighs only 26.28 ounces. In recent years Glock has promoted the G20 as a hunting pistol.

The EAA Witness DA autoloader is also offered in 10mm Auto and the Colt Delta Elite version of the 1911 Government Model used to be. There are probably others of which I am unaware.

The problem is the limited availability of suitable ammunition for the 10mm Auto cartridge. Remington does not offer any 10mm hunting ammo and Federal has only a single 10mm Light (FBI type) load. The Winchester 10mm factory load with a 175 grain Silvertip JHP bullet has an advertised muzzle velocity (MV) of 1290 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 649 ft. lbs. This is a potent anti-personnel load, but the Silvertip JHP handgun bullet is known more for rapid expansion than deep penetration. Hornady offers a 10mm factory load using their 200 grain jacketed hollow point XTP bullet (MV 1050 fps, ME 490 ft. lbs.). Hornady recommends this bullet for "medium game" (Class 2), which would presumably include wolf, cougar and possibly black bear, but not grizzly, brown and polar bear.

The stand out 10mm loads are from Cor-Bon and they are probably superior to anything you can handload. Cor-Bon offers a 10mm load in their Hunter line that drives a 200 grain (SD .179) Penetrator round-nose (RNPN) bullet at 1125 fps and 562 ft. lbs. The Cor-Bon Hunter line also includes a 180 grain (SD .161) bonded core soft point (BCSP) bullet at a MV of 1300 fps and ME of 676 ft. lbs. Although inferior in sectional density, the best 10mm Auto loads are otherwise about equivalent to the best .357 Magnum revolver loads.

There are a many makes and models of magnum revolvers in the marketplace. The reliability of any good revolver is unquestioned. Thus, my choice for protection in the field would be a magnum revolver with a 4.0" (absolute minimum) to 6.5" barrel, with a 5.5" to 6.5" barrel preferred. Ballistic performance is good and the sight radius is long enough to allow precise shot placement, which is critical.

This barrel length is necessary to achieve the requisite ballistic performance from magnum cartridges and remains reasonably handy to carry in a good shoulder or belt holster. A revolver with a shorter barrel may be slightly lighter and a bit handier to carry, but a short barrel simply does not allow a magnum cartridge to reach its full potential.

Never even consider a magnum revolver with a barrel shorter than 4.0". A magnum with a 2.5"-3" barrel is ballistically castrated and hardly any lighter or more convenient to carry than a 4" model. In addition, the decrease in practical accuracy between a 4" barrel and a 3" barrel is pronounced, due to the latter's decreased sight radius. The recoil and muzzle blast from a snub-nosed magnum are severe, which is also detrimental to accuracy.

Insist on fully adjustable sights. Fixed sights can be zeroed for only an "average" person shooting one load. For protection in the field you will probably be using heavy for caliber bullets at maximum velocity, not the nominal standard load and who knows how firmly the "average" person for whom fixed sights are presumably regulated holds the gun. (The slightest difference in grip will change the point of impact of any handgun.) Very precise shot placement will be necessary to save your life from a charging predator, so you need adjustable (target type) sights.

The three widely distributed magnum handgun cartridges are the .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum and .44 Magnum. Another possibility is the even more powerful .454 Casull, which has become more available in recent years.

Bullet selection for any of these should tend toward the heavy bullets for the caliber, to maximize sectional density and thus penetration. Jacketed soft point (JSP), bonded core, partitioned core, or hard cast bullets are the usual choices. Federal, for example, advertises their CastCore (hard cast lead) bullets as, "excellent for back-country self-protection."

At short range a full power .357 Magnum loaded with 158 grain (SD .177) to 180 grain (SD .202) bullets should suffice, since the target is the animal's central nervous system. Even one of the great bears can be stopped at close range if the shooter can deliver a .357 bullet to the brain.

The biggest advantage of the .357 is that most shooters can shoot it more accurately than the bigger magnums. The brain or spinal cord of even a large bear (the biggest of the big predators) is a small target, requiring precise bullet placement. "Spray and pray" won't get the job done, regardless of bullet diameter and energy.

Standard 158 grain .357 Magnum JSP factory loads, such as the Remington Express, call for a MV of 1235 fps and ME of 535 ft. lbs. Such loads are available from most ammunition manufacturers. Deep penetration .357 Mag. factory loads with 180 grain bullets are offered by Winchester (Partition Gold at 1180 fps and 557 ft. lbs), Federal (CastCore at 1250 fps and 625 ft. lbs.) and Cor-Bon (BCSP at 1265 fps and 640 ft. lbs.) Cor-Bon also offers a .357 load using a 200 grain (SD .223) hard cast bullet at 1150 fps and 587 ft. lbs. The .357/180 grain loads are my preference for protection in the field.

A .41 Remington Magnum revolver using 210 grain (SD .178) to 250 grain (SD .212) bullets in full power loads should be effective against large predators. The .41 is considerably more powerful than the .357, actually treading on the heels of the .44 Magnum. Of course, it also kicks almost as hard as a .44 and is almost as hard to control.

However, for those who can master it, the .41 Magnum is a good choice, particularly with heavy for caliber bullets. The Remington 210 grain JSP Express factory load has a catalog MV of 1300 fps and ME of 788 ft. lbs. The Cor-Bon Hunter line includes what is probably the ultimate .41 Mag. load. This uses a 250 grain hard cast bullet at 1325 fps MV and 975 ft. lbs. ME.

The best choice, for the relatively few shooters who can actually shoot it with the required level of precision, is probably a full power .44 Magnum shooting 240 grain (SD .185) to 320 grain (SD .248) bullets. The big .44 has proven that it can make an impression on even the largest predators.

The Remington 240 grain JSP Express factory load drives its bullet at a MV of 1180 fps and ME of 721 ft. lbs. Even fiercer (at both ends) is the Federal 300 grain CastCore load, with a MV of 1250 fps and ME of 1040 ft. lbs. The Cor-Bon Hunter line includes suitable .44 Mag. loads using 260, 280, 300, 305 and 320 grain bullets of various types. The impressive Cor-Bon 300 grain offerings include flat point penetrator and JSP bullets at 1250 fps and 1041 ft. lbs. from an 8.375" barrel.

The even more powerful .454 Casull has become popular with handgun hunters, but .454 revolvers are very large, even compared to .44 Magnum revolvers like the Ruger Super Blackhawk and S&W Model 629. The Freedom Arms Model 83 .454 is 14" long and weighs 50 ounces with a 7.5" barrel.

The Winchester 300 grain JFP .454 Casull factory load claims a MV of 1625 fps and ME of 1759 ft. lbs. The SD of that bullet is .210. Cor-Bon offers bullet weights of 265, 285, 300, 320, 335 and 360 grains in their .454 Hunter loads. The 350 grain bullet has a .250 SD and is driven at a MV of 1300 fps and 1351 ft. lbs. ME.

The problem is that very few outdoorsmen who are not dedicated handgun hunters are willing to carry an outsize .454 handgun. Similarly, very few shooters can control the recoil and muzzle blast of a .454. For the tiny minority who don't mind the size, weight, muzzle blast and recoil, the .454 is probably the optimum handgun caliber for protection against large predators, due to its combination of bullet diameter, sectional density and energy.

In the same general class are the .465 S&W, .480 Ruger and .500 S&W. Revolvers for these cartridges are often so large that in many cases one might as well carry (and would certainly be better served by) a lightweight rifle. The same could be said for the huge (and seldom seen) autoloading pistols such as the Desert Eagle and Wildey, which can be had in calibers up to .50 AE. With 6" barrels, the Widley weighs approximately 65 ounces and the Desert Eagle weighs 70.5 ounces!

I will now venture where wise men fear to tread and mention a few specific handguns. If I were buying a new single action (SA) revolver for protection against large predators, I would get either a stainless steel Ruger Blackhawk revolver (4.62" or 6.5" barrel) in .357 Magnum, or a Ruger stainless Super Blackhawk revolver (5.5" barrel) in .44 Magnum, depending on my recoil tolerance and which I could shoot better.

The .357 Blackhawk is 10.5" long and weighs 46 ounces with a 4.62" barrel (two ounces more with a 6.5" barrel). The Super Blackhawk is 11.38" long and weighs 45 ounces with a 5.5" barrel. Both the Blackhawk and Super Blackhawk can be had in either stainless steel or blued finishes, but I prefer stainless for protection in the field.

There are both objective and subjective reasons for choosing a SA revolver. Objectively, a SA is generally lighter and less bulky than a DA. They are stronger, pound for pound, more durable and every bit as accurate. Subjectively, at least for me, they fit my hand better, handle a little quicker, point more naturally and moderate heavy recoil better.

Since pin point accuracy is required, you should thumb cock either type of revolver and you sure as heck are not going to be able to reload (the DA's primary advantage in a fire fight). You will likely have time for only one good shot at a charging predator, so there is no particular reason to tote around a DA mechanism you will not use.

For the person who wants a double action (DA) revolver, the best .357 ever produced in the USA was the Colt Python, now discontinued. Stainless, nickel and blued Pythons with 4" or 6" barrels are available on the used market, but they are expensive. A 4" Python is 9.5" long and weighs 38 ounces. I often tote a 4" Ultimate Python in the field.

Among new DA .357s, the Ruger GP100 is available in your choice of blue or stainless finishes with 4.2" or 6" barrels. Overall length is 9.5" and the GP100 weighs 40 ounces with a 4.2" barrel. It is a strong, cleverly designed and well made revolver. Like the Python, the GP100 is built on a frame size ideal for a .357 Magnum, neither too big and heavy nor too small for long term durability.

In a DA .44 Magnum, the obvious choice is the stainless steel Ruger Redhawk. This is a big revolver, but not as huge as some, and it was designed specifically for the .44 Magnum cartridge. The standard Redhawk is available with a 4.2", 5.5", or 7.5" barrel. If carrying for protection in the field, I'd prefer the 5.5" option. A Redhawk with a 5.5" barrel is 11" overall and weighs 49 ounces.

These are all large revolvers, but very durable. They come with excellent adjustable sights, are highly accurate and are made in the U.S.A. Rugers are also reasonably priced, an important consideration for folks who are not handgun hunters.

Carried high in a cross-draw holster on a proper gun belt, these guns are not uncomfortable to tote in the field. Goodness knows, I have carried them a lot of miles in just that fashion. A cross-draw holster allows a good range of motion and does not interfere with sitting or driving a vehicle. It also keeps anything you might carry in your strong hand away from your handgun, preventing accidental bumps and dings.

Remember that first shot bullet placement is absolutely crucial, so whatever handgun you choose for protection in the field, make sure you can shoot it with great precision. You can't score peripheral hits fast enough to come out on top in a deadly encounter with a large predator. It is faster, stronger and much tougher than you are.

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Copyright 2003, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.